What Are You Going To Be When You Grow Up?

Courier Herald column for week of May 28th

What are you going to be when you grow up?  That’s the question the high school class of 2023 has been asked since their youngest days.  Toddlers seem much more confident in their answers of fireman, astronaut, or ballerina than those in high school.  That’s quite understandable, as they’re much closer to making that decision while also holding more real world understanding of the options available and the difficulties in the journey after choosing a professional path.

For those still struggling with this question, some comfort should be taken that most adults don’t have a good answer.  You can decide if it’s additional relief or another pitfall in that no one ever rings a bell and says “Time’s up. You’re an adult now. We need your final decision.”

Everyone must make these decisions in their own time.  The point of today’s column isn’t to say we should quit asking the question, but by the time a student is in middle school, this question should be more focused, with the answer more intentional.

We currently spend just left than half of the state’s budget on K-12 education.  When we add in our university system and technical colleges, it’s well more than half.  Add to that that roughly two-thirds of local property taxes plus a quarter or a third of local option sales taxes going to local boards of education, and there’s a significant share of state and local investment going into education. 

We accept that these expenditures are necessary and are the custom.  No matter what is spent, the need is always greater.  Perhaps graduation is a decent time to refocus on why we do this, and ask if we’re doing it correctly.

At the core of our public education system is the understanding that we must have a literate society in order to function.  The functioning part of this society means preparing the students of today for the workforce of tomorrow.  The most fundamental purpose of public education is preparing today’s students with the skills needed to be tomorrow’s workers.

That may sound crass and some will quibble with the wording, but all of the other purposes piled onto the responsibilities of our classroom teachers have this overriding need at the foundation of public education.  Education is about adding value so that the students in some form add a greater value back to society as adults.

We have a student loan repayment problem because too many have lost the focus of why schools exist in the first place.  If a student gets all the way through college and ends up with a degree that won’t pay their bills, there’s a myriad of problems that continue on from that point. 

Perhaps we should have had a greater focus on matching the student’s skills and desires to an occupational outcome much earlier.  This should have been done before the college path was even chosen, and certainly before debt was added as part of the plan.

We have consensus in education that students must learn to read by the third grade. After that, students must read to learn.  We really don’t have a standard focus for middle and high school, other than to move to the next level.  While our technical college system is highly focused on job skills, too many colleges and universities – public and private – seem to have divorced their degree programs from the job market that is – or is not – awaiting graduates.

A society that has become focused on equal outcome instead of equal opportunity misses the chance to help students select the paths most likely to unlock their own personal success. We instead are spending additional state money to train adults for the jobs employers need filled, rather than increasing the focus of many of these skills that can and should be taught in high schools, and even middle schools.

It’s time we took a hard look at our education system as a whole, and ask ourselves are we providing every student, individually, their best chance to succeed in life.  We should then begin a process of building community support for making adjustments to our middle and high schools to align with the paths in demand from employers of today and tomorrow.

We owe it to the taxpayers to ensure there’s a return on their very large educational investments.  We owe it to our students to not have to figure out how to afford to be an adult once they’ve already finished their own investment into their education.

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